Stella and Ruby were the best of friends. Everyone knew it. At five, they learned to fly together, their bony still-growing wings struggling to beat as they jumped from low tree branches onto the ground with their small hands, sticky from pilfered candies and sap, linked between them. It took them weeks, but they came out strong and soaring with matching scrapes on their knees and their cheeks appled up with glee.
Once they learned how to write, they passed so many notes in class that their teachers gave up trying to stop them. By the third grade, the teachers knew to put them next to each other in the back of the room, because at least that way no one else would be distracted by their shenanigans.
The other kids could try, but they could never be like Stella and Ruby.
Stella and Ruby even had their first kisses together, just to see what it was like, behind a rosebush in Stella’s mother’s garden. It was the day after Stella turned thirteen --Ruby was four months, ten days, and three a quarter hours older-- and they were supposed to be cleaning up the garden after the past night’s storm. The brick path desperately needed to be swept. Dirt was strewn across it in damp clods, and leaves littered the edges. Instead of taking up their brooms and setting to work, however, Stella and Ruby huddled together behind a mass of thorns and bright pink roses, their lips puckered tight and their eyes squeezed shut. Their shoulders shook with smothered laughter as they pressed their lips together. They both pulled away a fraction of a second later, eyes popping open.
Ruby wrinkled her nose, “You know, that’s like incest. And I don’t think I’m a fan of incest.” Stella burst out laughing.
A woman’s voice called out through the screen door on the patio, “What are you two up to? You’d better be sweeping! I don’t want a leaf in sight by dinner time!”
Stella leaned over her friend’s shoulder, whispering in a voice thick with giggles, “What will she make us do to the trees?”
Ruby grinned, huffing a light laugh into Stella’s hair before calling out, “Of course Mrs. Shern! You’ve got nothing to worry about; we’ve got everything under control.” She grabbed up her broom from where she had dropped it and began scraping clumps of soil, leaves, and browning rose petals into a pile. “Come on,” She kicked Stella’s broom towards her, “If we finish early we can fly around before the sun goes down.”
Stella popped out her bottom lip in a pout, flaring out her wings around herself, “But I don’t want to clean. I just want to fly.”
Still sweeping, Ruby kicked the broom closer, “A teenager for less than a day and you’re already whining.” She heaved a dramatic sigh, pushing more dirt into her pile, “Kids these days.”
Stella bounced up onto the balls of her feet, “Oh please!” With a flap of her wings, she sent herself up into the air. She spiraled up into the sky, her arms spread wide, and then sank back down slowly so she hovered over a rosebush. She crossed her ankles, “You were just as much of a pain on your birthday.” Ruby snorted, but Stella continued on with a smirk. “It was all, ‘Stella, get me this’ and ‘Stella, get me that.’ Ridiculous!”
Ruby moved along the path, sweeping it clean as she went. “Don’t let your mom see you flying right now. You know she wants you cleaning.”
“So you deny it?” Stella threw her arms up above her head and twirled.
“I’m warning you!” Ruby sang as the same woman’s voice erupted from the patio.
“Stella Shern!” It snapped, “Get out of the sky and help Ruby clean right now or else I will come out there and smack you with my wooden spoon!”
Stella dropped to the ground and grabbed her broom. “I warned you!” Ruby’s voice was soft and taunting, her smile cruel in the way only a friend’s can be. She took up a business-like tone. “Why don’t you start at that end of the path, and I can keep going with this one. We can meet in the middle.”
Stella huffed but obliged, and little by little they made their ways towards each other. Where they met at the center of the path, they made a small mound of dirt and leaves. Ruby frowned down at it. Stella bounced on her toes, “Hurry up!”
“Huh?” Ruby cocked her head. Stella swept the dirt into a corner, threw down her broom, and shot up into the sky. Her wingbeats sent tendrils of Ruby’s hair fluttering around her eyes. “Are you sure we can just leave it all there?” She asked.
Stella rolled her eyes. She leaned over in the air and tugged Ruby’s arm up, “It’s fine. Come on. Let’s go!”
Ruby sighed, but a smile blossomed on her face and she spread her wings.
They were in the sky together, spinning and laughing. As they flew higher, the air began to grow thin and the mist prickled on their skin. Stella soared above Ruby, flying loops as her friend spread her wings out flat and glided. Their laughs were rough, their chests heaving.
Ruby hovered, “Shouldn’t we go down now? We’re getting really high up.” She considered the neat rows of crops far below them. Her nose was red, her cheeks flushed in the cold.
Arms crossed across her chest, Stella tightened her wings against her back and let herself drop. Ruby let out a shriek but Stella caught herself in the air and rose back up to Ruby. Their noses were barely separated by the frozen air. They held each other’s gazes. Stella broke away with a grin and a twirl. “Nah, we’re fine. We’re strong, remember?”
Ruby gave a reluctant smile but nodded, “Alright birthday girl. But still. Be careful.”
Stella was already flying higher, sending a gust of frigid air across Ruby’s pink cheeks with each wingbeat. Ruby shivered and shot upwards too.
They wove through the air together, twisting around and around, their wings brushing up against each other, until there was no air anymore.
After that, they kept going.
They flew and flew. They were far above the clouds now. Their lungs were empty. Stela went first, her eyes growing wide and glassy, her lips parting. Her wings stopped fluttering. Ruby reached out, brushed a fingertip against her friend's hand. Stella dropped like a stone.
In the second before she, too, lost control, Ruby propelled herself downwards and caught Stella’s hand in her own. They fell together. Down down down.
The farmer’s daughter found them the next morning. She recognized them from school, thought they were playing one of their games, the kind that only they understood. But when she came closer, she saw the way their bones jutted out of their legs, coated in dried blood, and how their chests didn’t even stir with breath. Their wings were tangled together, joints bent at odd angles, beneath them.
The farmer’s daughter couldn’t resist taking a closer look. She crept closer, tiptoeing though she knew they couldn’t hear her, couldn’t get mad at her for creeping. The farmer’s daughter pressed her lips together to keep from crying. Stella and Ruby’s hands were linked, blue in the fingertips from cold and crusted with patches of blood.